Trinity 7 2018 ~ Dances of Life and Death
If you go to Jerusalem you can visit what many people call the ‘Wailing Wall’. It’s what remains of the Temple that Jesus knew and which the Romans destroyed in 70AD. The piazza at its base is still a synagogue, and many Jews go there on a Friday evening to celebrate the beginning of the Shabbat - the Sabbath. But they do not go there to wail - quite the opposite. One of the reasons that we should not really call the Western Wall of the Temple the ‘wailing wall’ is because on a Friday Jews go there to jump for joy. They go to dance before the Lord, to truly celebrate the beginning of the weekly festival, to dance with joy. You won’t be surprised to know that this exuberance can cause tension in a divided city, not leastly because 100 feet above them is the Haram al Sharif, the upper level where they may not go, where the holy of holies was and which is now an Islamic Shrine of the Al Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock. The closest they can get is the synagogue at the bottom of the Wall. Some of us have been there on a Friday night, and it is a memorable experience to see this, especially being reticent Brits that we are.
We don’t go in for dancing much in the Church of England. It involves a certain letting go, an ability to not care what anyone else thinks, and to show forth an inner emotion that longs to be released. As we grow older we hold it in and become self-conscious. Natural, self-expressionary dance has been civilised out of us. Perhaps like me you will have abiding memories of my Maria when she was about 3, dancing around this church, oblivious to what anyone else thought or cared. Dance can be pure celebration, pure emotion released, meaning nothing or anything, or indeed everything.
And we see something of this in Jerusalem to this day. The jumping Jews of Jerusalem, as some have called them, trace their emotional heritage back to King David, who dances for joy as the Ark of the Covenant is brought into Jerusalem, into the tent and into the very place below which the Jews dance still today. What a party it must have been – with a disco too! Childish exuberance expressed as praise to God. It was then, as now, a dance of joy, of life.
We might contrast this with the dance that causes the death of John the Baptist. Or perhaps I should say, John the Protester, who trump-eted his criticisms of the ruling family’s moral and political bankruptcy. In our Gospel reading, Salome, daughter of Herodias, dances a cynical, manipulative, erotic, almost abusive dance. You might know of Richard Strauss’ opera Salome, based on Oscar Wilde’s play, in which this dance is a musical centrepiece – the ‘Dance of the 7 veils’. It was even mentioned at the BBQ yesterday! It’s a challenge for an opera singer, because, anyone playing Salome has to do a striptease.
Oscar Wilde and then Richard Strauss were controversially fascinated by Salome - this alluring temptress who exploits the playboy Herod’s weakness to serve up a hot dish of revenge - a platter with Salome and her mother’s enemy John’s head on it as the centrepiece. For at the heart of this story is a severed head - the climax of a dance of death.
So there is a real contrast here between the dance of life - of David welcoming the new ark and Herod manipulated by a dance of revenge and death.
But there is nothing new under the sun: we see these dances happen still. I daresay there was dancing for joy as those Thai schoolboys were brought from the darkest place through the waters of death to emerge into the light of renewed life, with the watching, waiting world dancing for joy as they came through their ordeal. Those brave and modest divers led them through the waters of death – ministering salvation through the floods and bringing them into light. And one of them gave his life. The whole story is itself an allegory of salvation through baptism into Christ. We talk of baptism as going down into the waters that symbolise the death of Christ to resurface from the waters into the rebirth in the spirit that baptism is. ‘Must I re-enter the womb to be reborn’ asked Nicodemus of Jesus - well those boys were reborn from the dark cave of death, and what an ordeal - what a joy. Their parents must be dancing still!
But then, think of John the Baptist. Last time I preached on his beheading, I got severely taken to task by someone who was adamant that this story was inappropriate for children. Well yes, it is an X rated story - because it has sex and violence. And Oscar Wilde brought out those dark dimensions in his play. In the final scene, Salome kisses the lips of John’s severed head. The play was censored and banned. The play, Salome, is a triple X rated drama drawn from an X rated bible story. Let’s not beat about the bush - Salome took her clothes off. And Herod enjoyed it - was overpowered by it - and the Prophet John paid the stripper’s bill with his own head.
So it is a nasty story that digs down into submerged Freudian caves of dankness and darkness and, of course, death. And it is the Freudian dimensions which interested Wilde, and Strauss. Psychoanalytically, this cruel and unique story is universal in its ever-recurring themes of violence, power, sex and vengeance. Being overpowered, manipulated, or both, by desire, is a fundamentally human weakness. John criticised Herod and his second marriage, for precisely thus reason, and Herodias, the woman in question, prostitutes her own daughter on a sultry middle-eastern evening in order to serve up hot revenge on a cold platter. Sexual scandal, moral criticism, conspiracy and murder - you don’t even need me to give you examples – just read the newspapers. Even the world’s most powerful leaders are not so far removed from rumours of such scandal. The dance of moral weakness: of death and darkness is slowly waltzing the world over, from Syria to Salisbury. It is we – the human race, severally and individually, who are like Herod and Herodias – the fallen Adam and Eve who in weakness, conspire, abuse, hate and kill. Although there is not an apple in the centre of Herod’s platter, but the head of a good man.
But let’s turn to St Paul – from whom we hear of the blessedness of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ - the sheer celebration in praise and worship of a God who in Christ releases us from all this, illuminates another way, leading us up from the dark, dank depths, through the waters of baptism into the light of resurrection life that comes through the forceful, sacrificial overpowering of the deep desolation of dark, soul-destroying death.
So what is our dance to be? And what is your dance?
What is the dance of this parish? What are we dancing towards? Are we rotating on the slow waltz of material decline? Or are we gearing up for the tango of renewal? Reality check here - there isn’t enough money coming in to do what we need to. We can no longer afford to give the Diocese £80,000 a year. So we’ll just dance slower, right?
No - for if we slow down, we will eventually grind to a halt. Rather we need to invite others to join in the dance too. And if we don’t know the steps we must learn them. For some dances go out of fashion – get forgotten even. One can’t foxtrot forever - we need to learn and adopt a new dance - a dance that new people will want to join in. Next week we celebrate 135 years of this parish. And we have just decided to repair and renew the organ from September. There’s something to dance about - our hopes are becoming a reality. We have a new tune to dance to – the tune of a new organ. But with the renovated organ will come new music, and we need to work out - together - what the dance steps are to be for that new tune.
For our Lord Jesus is the Lord of the Dance. And he calls the tune. I wonder what it’ll be?
So to Jesus, Lord of the Dance and light of life, we commit ourselves as we dance into the future.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 15/07/18